Food poisoning is a food-borne illness caused by pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites. The germs infect and inflame the digestive tract after the consumption of contaminated foods or beverages (1). Its symptoms may occur a few hours to a few days after ingesting the contaminated food.
Usually, food poisoning resolves within a few days without treatment. However, in some cases, the symptoms may last longer or worsen, warranting prompt medical intervention to avoid complications. As a parent, it is good to know effective strategies for preventing food poisoning in children.
This post tells you about the possible causes of food poisoning in children, its symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, complications, and effective prevention.
Signs And Symptoms Of Food Poisoning
The signs and symptoms of food poisoning depend on the pathogen involved and can be mild or severe, depending on the infection’s intensity. Some of the common signs and symptoms indicating food poisoning in children are (2) (3):
- Mild to severe abdominal cramps
- Mild fever
- Diarrhea or loose stools
- Headache and general weakness
Food poisoning symptoms are similar to symptoms of other gastrointestinal issues, such as stomach flu. Thus, identifying the exact cause is vital for charting out appropriate treatment.
Cause Of Food Poisoning In Children
Food poisoning usually happens due to the consumption of contaminated animal-based foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, and seafood. However, unwashed fruits, vegetables, and contaminated water can also be the cause.
Bacteria are the most common microbes to cause food poisoning. They multiply when the temperature of the food and drinks is between 40°F and 140°F (4°C and 60°C). Their growth slows or ceases below 40°F (4°C), whereas thorough cooking often kills them (6).
- Staphylococcus aureus (Staph): It is a bacteria that usually live on the skin, often in the nose and armpits. It can spread to food from an infected person through hand contact, coughing, and sneezing.
- Salmonella: It is one of the leading causes of food poisoning in the US. Different salmonella strains can contaminate raw or uncooked animal-based foods.
- Escherichia coli: Escherichia coli or E. coli is a group of bacteria that live in the human intestines. A few of its strains can cause food-borne illnesses that mainly spread from undercooked ground beef, contaminated water, unpasteurized milk, and apple cider.
- Shigella: Shigella bacteria cause an intestinal infection called shigellosis. It mainly spreads from foods, such as raw or undercooked seafood and raw, ready-to-eat produce.
- Clostridium botulinum: It is a class of bacteria that needs an oxygen-free environment to multiply and produce toxins that cause botulism. Ingesting improperly canned foods, especially low-acid vegetables, such as peas and beets, can cause botulism.
Viruses can also spread through contaminated food and water. Once inside the body, viruses invade living cells and multiply. Although many viruses can cause food poisoning, a few common ones are:
- Hepatitis A: Hepatitis A virus (HAV) can spread from the gastrointestinal tract to the liver, causing viral liver disease, which usually resolves on its own. It is preventable through the vaccine (7).
- Norovirus: Also known as “Norwalk” or “Norwalk-like virus,” it is a group of viruses that spreads through contact with infected people and surfaces (8). Shellfish from contaminated water and raw ready-to-eat produce can spread the virus.
- Rotavirus: Rotaviruses are microorganisms that cause vaccine-preventable infections and severe diarrheal diseases. Their spread is common among infants and young children through contaminated food and poor hygiene (9).
Parasites are organisms that survive by taking nourishment from other organisms known as hosts. Although food poisoning caused by parasites isn’t common, it is possible and could be severe. Toxoplasma gondii, giardia, and cryptosporidium are a few common parasites that can affect children.
Apart from these, molds and other contaminants, such as allergens, can also cause food poisoning in humans. Certain harmful chemicals, such as those found in wild mushrooms, can also cause food poisoning.
When To See A Doctor?
Children under five years of age and those with weakened immunity should seek medical guidance with the onset of food poisoning symptoms. For otherwise healthy older children, the following signs and symptoms indicate the requirement of medical intervention (16) (17).
- Severe abdominal discomfort that doesn’t subside even after bowel movement
- Inability to digest food and recurrent vomiting lasting more than 12 hours
- A high-grade fever of 38°C (100.4°F) or above
- Bloody diarrhea or bloody vomit
- Severe dehydration, muscle pain, and chills
- Rapid heart rate and difficulty breathing
- Dizziness, blurry vision, or tingling in the arms
Diagnosis Of Food Poisoning
In most cases, food poisoning can be diagnosed based on the child’s symptoms. A doctor may conduct the following tests to ascertain the precise cause and determine complications (10).
- Physical exam: The doctor will check the location of the abdominal pain, ask about the recent foods eaten, and check for vital parameters, such as blood pressure and pulse.
- Blood test: It can help confirm infections or signs of complications, such as dehydration. It could also help rule the possibility of other infections or problems.
- Stool test: A stool test can determine the presence of viruses, bacteria, or parasites. For instance, the presence of blood in stool indicates an infection with bacteria or parasites.
Treatment For Food Poisoning
If the symptoms are mild, food poisoning can be treated at home. In most cases, health improves within a few days without medical intervention (11). Severe symptoms could require the following treatments.
- Fluid and electrolyte replenishment: A child with food poisoning should be kept well-hydrated by replacing lost fluid and electrolytes. Fresh fruit juices, clear soups, thin stews, and broths can be helpful. Oral rehydration solution (ORS), such as Pedialyte, can be given to children with severe dehydration after consulting a doctor.
- Dietary changes: In some cases, the child may lose appetite temporarily. However, as soon as they regain it, they should be fed easily digestible foods, such as rice, toast, and bananas, to soothe the gut. Also, avoid foods such as caffeinated beverages as they can worsen food poisoning symptoms and hinder gut healing (12). Apart from this, let your child rest as much as possible to conserve energy and hasten recovery.
- Antibiotics: If the symptoms persist or turn severe, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics or medicines that target bacteria or parasites. In some cases, doctors may recommend probiotics to relieve diarrhea and promote digestion.
Hospitalization is often required to treat children with severe symptoms and complications.
Viral food poisoning cannot be treated with antibiotics, and you will have to wait for the immune system to clear the infection. Supportive care, such as hydration and rest, is essential in such cases. If you wish to try any home remedy or follow alternative medicine, consult your doctor first.
Complications Of Food Poisoning In Children
Serious complications due to food poisoning are uncommon. In most cases, food poisoning resolves without affecting long-term health. However, in some cases, it might cause the following complications (1).
- Dehydration: Dehydration is the most common complication of food poisoning. Recurrent vomiting and persistent diarrhea disturb fluid and electrolyte balance, leading to dehydration. Replacing lost fluids and minerals can prevent the condition. Dehydration is often mild, but severe cases could require hospitalization to prevent complications, such as organ damage.
- Hemolytic uraemic syndrome: It is a rare kidney complication most common in young children under five years. The condition develops due to E. coli infection, although other bacteria and viruses may also cause it. In this condition, the red blood cells destroy and block the kidney’s filtering system, affecting the kidney’s functions or damaging it in severe cases.
- Guillain Barre syndrome: It is yet another rare disorder that may develop in cases of infections due to campylobacter bacteria. The syndrome causes the body’s immune system to attack parts of the peripheral nervous system. As a result, the body’s muscles struggle to coordinate with the brain, causing temporary paralysis in some individuals (13).
- Reactive complications: Food poisoning may affect other body parts and cause other symptoms, such as joint inflammation, skin inflammation, and eye inflammation. In rare cases, the child may develop irritable bowel syndrome. According to experts, most of these symptoms could happen due to weakened immunity and degraded nutritional status after a food poisoning episode.
Timely diagnosis and treatment can help avoid complications and keep the gut healthy after a bout of food poisoning.
Prevention Of Food Poisoning In Children
The best way to prevent food poisoning is to maintain optimum food and personal hygiene and avoid unsafe foods and drinks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following “four simple steps at home” (14) (15).
- Clean: Educate your child to wash hands for 20 seconds with water and soap before and after eating. Guide them to use a hand sanitizer whenever washing hands isn’t possible. Clean hands before and after preparing food. Wash utensils, knives, chopping/cutting boards, and countertops with hot, soapy water. Clean other surfaces that you frequently touch, such as the fridge door, using a surface disinfectant. Wash fruits and vegetables with plain water and avoid handling food without gloves if you have open sores or cuts.
- Separate: Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs separate from other foods while storing. Preferably, keep them in sealable containers in the lowermost section of the fridge to prevent their juices from dripping onto other foods. Use separate cutting boards, knives, and utensils for raw meat, poultry, and seafood. Wash raw meat and poultry slowly under running water to prevent water from splashing over other kitchen surfaces.
- Cook: Cook raw food, especially meat, poultry, and seafood, thoroughly to kill harmful pathogens. Use a food thermometer to know if the food is properly cooked. For instance, the ideal temperature to thoroughly cook ground meats, such as beef and pork, is 160°F (71°C). Whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb usually get well-cooked by 145°F (63°F). While reheating food, ensure to reheat it all through in a clean utensil. Discard food after reheating it once.
- Chill: Store foods at appropriate temperatures to prevent bacterial growth. The refrigerator should be set to 40°F (4°C) or below while the freezer should be 0°F (-18°C) or below. Keep perishable food items in the fridge within one to two hours of purchase. Never thaw frozen foods on the counter. Instead, thaw them in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Store cooked leftovers in the fridge within a couple of hours.
Label your food with a date whenever you store it. It will ensure you discard them on expiry. Do not use packaged foods with broken seals or canned products with a dent or puffiness as they are highly likely to be contaminated.
Food poisoning is a food-borne illness that can spread by contaminated food and beverages. In most cases, food poisoning resolves within a few days without any treatment. Optimum hydration, ample rest, and easily digestible foods, such as soups and stews, can help a child stay hydrated. However, in some cases, it may need medical intervention. Good food hygiene is the best way to prevent the illness.
2. Food poisoning; Medline Plus; U.S. National Library of Medicine
3. Food poisoning; Nidirect
4. Food Poisoning; U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
5. Food Poisoning; University of Rochester Medical Center
6. Food Poisoning and Food Contamination; Healthy Children; AAP
7. Hepatitis-A, Treatment; NHS
8. Norovirus; CDC
9. Rotavirus, Transmission; CDC
10. Diagnosis of Food Poisoning; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
11. Treatment for Food Poisoning; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
12. Treating food poisoning; NHS
13. Guillain-Barre Syndrome; Medline Plus; U.S. National Library of Medicine
14. Four Steps to Food Safety: Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill; CDC
15. Preventing food poisoning; NHS
16. Food Poisoning; KidsHealth From Nemours
17. Food Poisoning 101: Commonly Asked Questions For Parents; Texas Children’s Hospital
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